Time to Get Serious about Diversity in Law

Business TeamBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

On Tuesday, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession convened a group of lawyers and other professionals for a symposium on diversity. While the IILP’s own research on the topic was published earlier this year, the event featured presentations by top researchers and speakers on the issue.

One main point emphasized at forum, held at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in New York City, was the slow pace of change in the profession regarding gender, ethnic, disability, and even more microtargeted diversities.

Floyd Holloway, Counsel at State Farm Insurance and Board Member of the IILP, explained, “We don’t have the luxury of looking at the issue with a pensive state… as we might have done two decades ago.”

He continued, “The pipeline issue is still very much alive today.”

In a profession marked by a commitment to justice, fairness, and equality, he urged his peers to leave a legacy as the generation who made a difference for diversity in their own profession. “Make the difference and carry the dialogue forward,” he said.

Striking Data

According to Sandra Yamate, Executive Director of the IILP, one of the challenges facing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession is a lack of solid demographic data. “It’s really important that we at least know what we’re talking about so we know the problems we’re trying to solve,” she said.

She explained that one critique of the organization’s study has been the fact that it was focused on larger firms. “So much of the diversity dialogue tends to focus on large law firms – because there’s very little detailed information [on smaller firms].”

Nevertheless, she said, the numbers are stark. American Bar Association research by Elizabeth Chambliss, Professor of Law and Co-Director, Center for Professional Values and Practice at New York Law School, showed that while in 2009 women’s representation in the legal profession increased to 32.4% (up from 28.7% in 2000), women are still not breaking through to leadership in large numbers.

A summary of Chambliss’ report, “The Demographics of the Profession,” provided by the IILP says, “Women continue to be underrepresented in top-level jobs within the legal profession, such as law firm partner (19.4 percent) federal appellate judge (26.8 percent) and law school dean (20.6 percent).”

Minority women in particular are few and far between at the top ranks of the profession. The report continues, “Minority women, in particular, are underrepresented in top-level jobs. As of 2010, minority women comprised only 2 percent of all (income and equity) partners nationwide.”

Additionally, the numbers demonstrate the “leaky pipeline” of women in the profession. The summary says:

“Based on the data that are available, women’s representation is the highest among law firm associates (45.4 percent in 2010), corporate counsel (39 percent in 2006), and entry-level law faculty (53.4 percent in 2008-09), and lowest among law partners (19.4 percent in 2010) and deans (20.6 percent in 2008-09).”

The Business Case for Diversity

Those numbers may be hard to swallow for some – but if law firms want to grow in a business sense in the next decade, they’re going to have to focus on improving inclusion and diversity, said Brian W. Duwe, Managing Partner, of the Chicago Office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

By focusing on business benefits of diversity, he explained, “We will maximize our ability to find… the best talent and enhance our ability to attract new clients if our teams reflect the diversity of our clients.”

Duwe pointed out that Skadden Arps was one of the first firms to establish an office of diversity in the 1980s, but that it still has a long way to go – and so does the rest of the profession. He continued, “The frustration is… not withstanding all of the efforts, which are going on at every organization in the profession, the state of diversity in the legal profession is still woefully [behind] other industries – and that of our clients.”

Research has shown that diverse teams mean better problem solving and a more “nimble and adaptive organization,” Duwe said. And in the coming years, law firms are going to need those attributes to attract clients and win cases.